Is your church a cult?
by David Epps
In the 1970s, while living in another state, my family and I began attending a church. The pastor was warm, friendly, energetic, a great teacher, and seemed enthusiastically happy to see us arrive. The church was multi-racial, something unusual in the South in those days, and was full of young adults and children. There was uplifting praise, wonderful worship, and a solid and conservative theological outlook. It was a Christian church.
It was also a cult.
One definition of a cult is “A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.” It was the behavior of the leader that classified our group as a cult.
During the not-quite-a-year we were heavily involved in the church we saw nothing amiss until near the end. After all, no one wants to believe their church is a cult.
If someone had warned us in advance, the signs would have been unmistakable. It’s hard to see, and harder to admit, that a church is a cult when one is on the inside. So, here are a few things to look for:
1. How much authority does the leader exert over the church?
All successful churches have strong leaders. A true pastor leads with gentleness and by example. While he must be a leader, he is not a Third World dictator. He certainly has limited authority when it comes to the ordering of your personal life. Some pastors have gone so far as to tell their church members where to live, what kind of car to buy, where to vacation, etc.
2. Does he claim to be infallible?
Cult leaders are always right. They are the only people who really understand the Bible, God’s plans, and God’s ways. Because he is always right, he must always be obeyed. Disagreement and disobedience are not tolerated.
3. How does the leader respond when challenged or disagreed with?
Does he threaten, intimidate, berate, or diminish the person? Does he get angry? Can he admit when he is wrong and respond appropriately? Are the people afraid to question him? Is it assumed that, because he is the leader, he can do no wrong?
4. Is he focused on obtaining offerings of money or property?
Churches cannot operate without funds, so it is normal to preach/teach on giving and tithing. However, if this is a primary focus or people feel that they are forced to give to “really be part of the church” then something is wrong.
5. Does the leader usurp the God-given leadership in the home?
The scriptures teach that the husband is the priest of the home. If the leader comes between the husband and wife or attempts to diminish the husband’s spiritual role while overtly or covertly seeking to become the woman’s “head,” then there is a problem. If the wife sees the leader of the church, and not her husband, as her “spiritual authority,” there is also a problem.
6. How does the group talk about other churches?
Do they criticize other churches for their practices, beliefs, or teachings? Does the leader try to make his church seem like the “elite place” while casting doubt on other orthodox churches?
7. How are people who leave the church treated?
Are they seen as traitors? Are they shunned? Are they depicted as having left the “true” church? Not everyone who leaves a church leaves in the right way. It doesn’t mean that they have gone over to the dark side.
Almost all of the above traits were found in the church/cult we attended. Eventually, the pastor left his family and his church and ran off with a young woman of college age he was “counseling.”
Fortunately, before that happened, we had left. Still, once the dust settled, there were many shattered lives and disillusioned followers. We felt betrayed, humiliated, and just plain stupid.
Compare the list to your own church. You are probably in a great church that is doing great things for God and the community. However, if several or all of the above traits are present in your group, then to paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, “You just might be in a cult.”
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]